jueves, 31 de marzo de 2016

The complexity of the reading experience: Thoughts and reflections of a group of YA readers of comics

  The Damaged Books Room (Fantagraphics). Jonas Seaman

We are very grateful to Lucia for this entry on her research with comics, young people and reading. It will surely be of interest to many of our readers. As the most recent conferences and exhibitions show, the aesthetics and potential of comics are increasingly recognized.
In fact, an exhibition has just opened at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow:

EA and LG

Lucia Cedeira Serantes is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (Queens College, CUNY). She is currently working on expanding her thesis chapter on reading and materiality. Her next research projects will explore non-readers’ relationship to reading: trying to shed some light on the ways in which notions and practices around reading are communicated and perpetuated and why and in what ways youth modify or reject these ideas about “reading” as part of their identity development.

As many other PhD students before me, after a year into the program I felt the urge to move away from the very topic that brought me to the program. That move provoked a mixture of anxiety and excitement but I quickly found a new path, thanks to much reading and the patience and guidance of my supervisors. My interest in the reading experience, and comics readers in particular, grew from different projects I engaged in, with some ending up making it into the academic world (Cedeira Serantes, 2013) and others making up much of that invisible and laborious work that researchers do. So why comics and reading? Basically I thought that there were more to comics readers than what I was seeing represented in the Media Studies (with their focus on fans) and Education and Library and Information Science (LIS) literature (with their focus on reluctant and/or visual readers).

Historically comics have been a very popular reading material for youth in spite of the attacks and poor consideration received from adults and educational and cultural institutions. Most of the research efforts have focused on analyzing texts—especially lately in terms of regarding comics as good literature—along with a consideration of comics as a text and product in the fan experience. I wanted to move the focus from fan communities and comics as texts to readers. My research focus was comics readers and how they constructed and understood their reading experience of comics as a reading material and what this revealed about reader identities and social contexts of reading. This focus exposes my academic influences, who deserve a direct acknowledgement: Radway (1991) who sparked my interesting for neglected readers; Mackey (2011) and Ross, McKechnie & Rothbauer (2006) who solidified the project; and Gemma Lluch and Fuller & Rehberg Sedo (2013) who keep expanding my horizons.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my own personal history as a reader of comics made me rather open-minded and attentive to the possibility of a multiplicity of experiences. I am originally from Spain and as a child I read 13, Rue del Percebe by Francisco Ibañez, Astérix by Goscinny and Uderzo, and El Capitán Trueno by Mora and Ambrós. As a teenager my taste moved towards superheroes and the X-Men group became one of my favourites. In university, my engagement with comics faded away and the only contact I had was through the magazine El Vibora until my MLIS studies when Maus by Art Spiegelman rekindled my love for comics. My reading history mixes genres, nationalities, and formats and it was an (anecdotal) example of the differences that can potentially affect the development of comics readership.

To keep the readers’ voices at the center of my work, I adopted an approach informed by hermeneutical phenomenology that made immediate the richness and multifaceted nature of the reading experience (Cohen, Kahen and Steeves 2000; Kvale and Brinkmann 2009). I interviewed seventeen participants, from sixteen to twenty-five years of age, nine female and eight male, who also represented different reading experiences: beginning readers, occasional but committed readers, and expert readers. I recruited participants and collected data in three different sites: public libraries, comics stores and at a university with a large undergraduate population.

The ideas, processes, and conclusions that emerged from these interviews presented comics reading as a sophisticated practice with unique characteristics and this group of diverse readers as committed, conscientious, and reflexive. It also emphasized the situated nature of the reading experience that requires the researcher to explore both how the experience is shaped but also shapes the reader-self and how it is embedded in an influential social context. Allow me to elaborate. The richness of the data I worked with was such that I was constantly grappling with the temptation to simplify their shared experiences: to separate what my readers were experiencing as a whole into defined compartments that, as a researcher, would afford me an easier analysis and presentation. I managed to fight this temptation through a visual representation that, while not a model, brought together what I ended up naming the four dimensions of the reading experience: 1) the construction of the reader-self; 2) the significant role of the materiality of comics; 3) the institutional contexts of comics reading and; 4) the unique temporal aspects of comics reading in contemporary society.


Lucia Cedeira Serantes

I recognize that the visual representation is not an epitome of clarity and I often need to explain it, but as a tool, it helped me to keep the four dimensions together and keep in mind the experiential complexity that my readers were sharing. The first dimension (the reader-self) attempts to explore the identity of the reader, that is constructed both solitarily and socially, especially in connection with the comics community; gender and positive and negative reading experiences are other key factors in the evolution of the reader-self. The materiality question (the second dimension) was raised by my participants and they helped to investigate how the change of media/format can potentially alter our relationship to reading and to the reading material; they especially focused on the affordances of print comics in comparison (not against) digital comics. The third dimension revealed the importance that surrounding structures and institutions (the comics industry, libraries, and educational institutions) have in the comics reading experience and how they become sites where comics reading is introduced, encouraged, or denigrated, directly or indirectly. Finally, the fourth dimension refers to time and how these readers construct comics as complex narratives that smoothly adapt to the temporal requirements connected to a current state of time scarcity, acceleration, speed, and instantaneity; however, readers also appreciated the quality of comics to allow for moments of contemplation (Cedeira Serantes, forthcoming May 2016).

The knowledge emerging from these participants’ experiences and understandings significantly enhances and seriously challenges commonplace understandings of the reading practices of a historically neglected group of readers. Previous posts by Erin Spring or Carolina González clearly reflect the opportunity for reading research that looks at the meaning emerging from reading practices and experiences as well as “newly discovered” formats such comics. The thoughts and reflections that these YA readers shared advance and extend the knowledge about the complexities of YA reading practices and support the necessity and timeliness of introducing comics in libraries and other cultural and educational institutions.


Cedeira Serantes, L. 2013. Misfits, loners, immature students, reluctant readers: Librarianship participates in the construction of teen comics readers. In Transforming young adult services: A reader for our age, edited by Anthony Bernier, 115-135. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Cedeira Serantes, L. forthcoming May 2016. When comics set the pace: The experience of time and the reading of comics. In Plotting the Reading Experience: Theory, Practice, Politics, edited by Lynne Mckechnie, Paulette Rothbauer, Knut Oterholm, and Kjell Ivar Skjerdingstad. Waterloo, Ontario Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Cohen, M. Z., David L. Kahn, and Richard H. Steeves. 2000. Hermeneutic Phenomenological Research: A Practical Guide for Nurse Researchers. Thousand Oaks, Calif.; London; New Delhi: Sage.

Fuller, D., and DeNel Rehberg Sedo. 2013. Reading beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture. New York: Routledge.

Kvale, S., and S. Brinkmann. 2009. InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Mackey, M. 2011. Narrative Pleasures in Young Adult Novels, Films, and Video Games. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Radway, J. A. 1991. Reading the Romance : Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ross, C. S., McKechnie, L., and P. M. Rothbauer. 2006. Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited

miércoles, 9 de marzo de 2016

Sexuality, young people and reading

From the film The Fault in our Stars based on the novel by John Green

One of the most notorious social and cultural changes in the last 25 years can be observed in relation to young people’s sexuality. The media, the internet and social networks have had a great impact in this sense, facilitating access on the one hand to information about all types of themes and perspectives related to sexuality and on the other, to all types of pornography and sexual violence. Research in Mexico, as in other countries, has revealed that adolescent fecundity has increased alongside the number of sexually active teenagers. Despite an increase in information in general about reproductive health and awareness of effective methods of contraception, this does not seem have made a mark on the statistics of adolescent pregnancies or on the percentages of sexually transmitted diseases. It has also been observed that young people are one of the population groups most affected by sexual violence and, in general, the most vulnerable adolescents are those from sectors with the least education and the greatest poverty levels.[i]
In our study we did not intend to investigate adolescent sexuality but it was inevitable that the topic would arise given that our participants were between 14 and 15 years old and therefore found themselves in a crucial stage of life in terms of the exploration of and construction of opinions, representations, perspectives and decisions about relationships, sex and sexual orientation. The most common comments made by these students were about the need of obtaining information, especially about homosexuality, but also about bullying, assault and sexual violence within relationships.
These preoccupations stemmed partly from the reading we did: in Justicia Divina there is an explicit sexual scene as well as references to one of the ghosts as homosexual; in The Girl in Red, the theme of female sexual exploitation  permeates the picturebook and there a threat of violence underlies it from beginning to end and Memorias de Idhún highlights the desire and love of mortal enemies Kirtash and Jack for Victoria which leads them to accepting she loves both of them (further on in the saga she has a sexual relationship with each of them).
However, even before giving them these books, references to sexuality emerged almost immediately when we talked about their reading outside school. One participant mentioned, quite frankly, that sexual relations was a topic of interest: ‘just now I’ve read a book that is about adolescents, what has happened to them, how to look after ourselves and all that […] in a sexual relationship, how to protect ourselves, and that’s it.”
At first we thought that perhaps in order to gauge our reaction, two of the participants started to tell us in detail about erotic novels. Later on, as we came to know them a bit better, it seemed to us that in both cases their choice and their desire to talk about these topics had to do with situations in which they found some resemblance with incidents or problems that were affecting them a the time. One girl told us:
[…] I like to read, I just read a book called “Julieta and her toyboys”, it is about sex or that, it talks about how she plays with them because she had, she was very in love with a person, a guy, and he treated her badly, and then she wanted to do the same, she wanted to treat men badly and she is very pretty and has a good body, she played with all of them and did bad stuff like leaving them like… it just sounds vulgar…  like turned on […]
The other participant described a book by the Marquis de Sade and later in the project returned several times to the topic of abuse and violence; for example, in his River of Reading he included a book called The Art of Being Young and he explained it was about
[…] how to have a loving relationship without violence, in which it implies that one person does not need to be the subject of violence from their partner, that there should be mutual love and that a person should not be forced to have sexual relations if both don’t want to, because that would be sexual abuse.
Among the rest of the participants there were several allusions to the topic of sexual violence, some more explicit than others, and especially in relation to The Girl in Red, where the first ending leaves the fate of the girl in the wolf’s hands and to the reader’s imagination.
The allusions to homosexuality were less explicit but it became evident that some participants were anxious about their sexual orientation. Even though there now exists more tolerance in Mexico towards the LGBT population, there still exist many conservative cultural and religious sectors characterized by their intolerance and homophobia. Once again, these comments arose in the first session:
There was a bookshop […] I went in and found many books and they all seemed very cool but there was one that caught my attention […] I decided to buy it and I liked it, I began to read, read, read and I got really into everything that was there, like how a young girls can fall in love with someone of their same sex.
It is important to note that these type of comments can raise serious questions for all of those professionals who work with young people, even if it is simply a reading workshop. What should we say about these books? How should we respond? We can listen and be supportive but we cannot and must not take on the role of psychologist or therapist if we are not trained to do so. According to most research ethics procedures, when researchers identify a study participant as perhaps being affected by a particular situation, especially a young person in school, this concern must be referred to the relevant school authorities. Although we had no clear evidence, we felt that reporting our concern was more important than confidentiality regarding the readers’ responses; as it turned out, the person in charge of the students was already aware of these issues.
In the survey carried out in 1992, among the most read books were Born Innocent, Go Ask Alice and What is Happening to my Body? In 1996, the most popular book was Juventud en Éxtasis [Youth in ecstasy] by Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez, who at the time was among the best-selling authors in Mexico. In an article that explores the construction of sexualities and relationships in this “self-help” novel, Daniel Nehring (2009) argues that the popularity of this novel highlights the cultural transformations in terms of sexual relationships in Mexico in the last decades, especially in terms of the tensions between tradition (religious and patriarchal) and modernity.
Some of the books by Cuauhtémoc Sánchez appeared in the 2014 survey but they found a rival in Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (the film had not yet been released). One afternoon when we arrived at the school, the Head Teacher told us that she had confiscated this book from one of the students. One of the workshop participants told me she was also reading it and defended her classmate:
[…] the Head Teacher was angry because she said those books were not for our age. But well I think it depends how you take it, right, because if you are a morbid person or that sort, well obviously you are going to take it that way but I take it as a distraction, like getting to know about experiences from books, and well I’m reading it, and I don’t bring it to school because yes, they took it away from her […] So I saw it as an injustice because even the Head Teacher herself said that those sort of books it depends how you take it because it’s an erotic book […] that is, yes there are ages for reading some books but for example my mother, I tell her what it’s about and she tells me: well take it this way or that way, right, so she helps me digest it a bit better.
This defence is heartening in the sense that it reveals a mature position on the girl’s part, in which she is aware of the different reasons and ways in which one can approach this type of reading, of the importance of being able to “know about experiences” through books without placing herself in risky situations and of the advantage of being able to talk about these issues with an open-minded person who can guide her, in this case, her mother.
While Lydia Kokkola (2013) argues that in most young adult literature there is an underlying conservative perspective and controlling desire on the part of the adults (who remain anxious  about the manifestation of desire in young people), Kimberley Reynolds (2007) notes that there are also “radical” young adult books that not only represent changes in society but also contribute to forming new attitudes and expectations for, and among, the young people. She argues that these books can actually help readers adjust to these cultural and social changes. Hence, in the books written with teenagers in mind, in the 1970s, the informative and didactic messages about sex and sexualities predominated but more recently, despite criticism and censorship, YA novels have begun to approach the topics of desire, pleasure and sexual relationships among adolescents (heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual) with increasing naturalness, without falling into “moral panics” and even with humour. An example would be The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, another of the books most frequently mentioned in the 2014 survey in Mexico, in which a candid, loving and respectful sexual relationship develops between two young people.
The reading of this type of “radical” YA novels, together with an adequate and prepared mediation can provide a safe space for the exploration and the expression of doubts and feelings as opposed to maintaining a silence around dangerous and abusive situations. Perhaps it can also help young people to see themselves as sexual beings, with all that this implies.

"How to have a loving relationship without violence?"
From one participant’s “River of Reading”

[i] General references: National Survey of Health and Nutrition 2012; Campero Cuenca1, L. et al (2013) Salud sexual y reproductiva de los adolescentes en México: evidencias y propuestas, Gaceta Médica de México 149:299-307; National Survey of the Demographic Dynamics 2014 (INEGI); Stern, C. (ed) (2008) Adolescentes en México. Investigación, experiencias y estrategias para mejorar su salud sexual y reproductiva. El Colegio de México.